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Older--and Wiser : Is he mellowing out? For Harold Robbins, life used to be women and money. Now, he warms to one woman--and to his craft.

March 15, 1995|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PALM SPRINGS — Harold loves Jann.

When she's out of sight, he musters strength and bellows for her.

When she's near, he blankets her hand with fervent kisses.

At close range, he pulls her down to him, nuzzles the neckline of her ivory satin blouse and murmurs huskily into her cleavage, "You're fabulous, baby, so fabulous."

The scene is straight out of a Harold Robbins novel--any of the 21 blockbuster sagas Robbins has spun since 1948, all of which are still in print with total sales edging toward three-quarters of a billion copies.

"Never Love a Stranger," "The Dream Merchants, "A Stone for Danny Fisher" and "79 Park Avenue" all preceded that all-time naughty favorite, "The Carpetbaggers" (1961), which was loosely based on the lives of Howard Hughes and Hollywood types who talked on the printed page very much like Robbins still talks in real life in his glass-walled Palm Springs living room. "Come here, baby, and let me love you."

The unrelenting rapture Robbins exhibits with his wife might be surprising for any guy of 78, let alone one who is immobilized in a wheelchair, often attached to oxygen tubes and in almost constant pain.

Robbins makes it look easy.

Like his heroes, he is a man of few words and much action, who rarely complains about the hand fate deals him.

"I'm very happy," Robbins rasps enthusiastically through his tubes. "I may have lost a lot, in terms of money, but I don't miss it. In fact, I have more now than I ever had. Without Jann, I'd be nothing."

*

Robbins' new novel, "The Raiders," out last month from Random House, is a sequel to "The Carpetbaggers." An update on the life of Jonas Cord, the now-aging tycoon, who finally realizes that the meaning of life is not sex, power or money. It's the love of a good woman--one who just happens to be a luscious blonde roughly half his age, whose description just happens to fit that of the real-life Mrs. Harold Robbins, who is roughly half the age of her husband.

Go figure.

Until an accident in 1986, Robbins' life approximated that of his super-rich, highly sexed fictional characters--a whirl of high-spending hyperactivity that kept him hopping in luxury between continents, homes, boats, cars and women.

When writing a book, he'd hole up in his Cannes villa or the Beverly Hills home that used to be Gloria Swanson's. Typing with two fingers for 12 hours at a time, he'd spin a tale that would turn to pure gold at bookstores around the world.

After all that work, he felt entitled to go out and spend his hard-earned money.

Recalling the days when his 85-foot yacht toured the Mediterranean "with two beautiful French whores I hired as decorations," Robbins says he has no regrets that he had it all, and no regrets that he has (perhaps temporarily) lost it.

Gone are the homes, the planes, the yachts, the garages filled with Rolls-Royces and other fancy cars.

What he has lost--due to illness, financial naivete, divorce or indulgence--is more than most individuals ever dream of possessing. And he says he knows it.

"But nothing I had in the past compares to my life now with Jann."

*

The two met in 1982, when Jann Stapp arrived in Los Angeles from her native Oklahoma, where she had been an advertising executive. Robbins was looking for an assistant and hired her.

Three years later, he tripped while getting out of the shower at his house in Beverly Hills. He flew across the floor, crashed into immovable porcelain objects, crushed one hip bone and fractured the other. His wife of 28 years, Grace Robbins, was out of town at the time. Stapp was the one who found him.

In surgeries that followed to repair his crushed bones, Robbins suffered nerve damage, which has caused almost constant pain ever since. An implant to block the pain was unsuccessful, and Robbins has become progressively less mobile.

Stapp and Robbins had become "good friends" before the accident and say their friendship deepened afterward. They were married on Valentine's Day, 1992, seven days after his divorce from Grace became final.

Although Robbins was unable to write for a while, with Stapp's help he began again. In 1991, "The Piranhas," about corporate greed, was published. This year, "The Raiders." And two months ago, just before he was hospitalized for three weeks with pneumonia, he finished a sequel to "The Betsy," loosely based on the life of Henry Ford. It will be published next year, Robbins says. He now threatens to write "the greatest story ever told": his autobiography.

Val Guest, British film director and Robbins' friend in Palm Springs, recalls that Robbins "was very active before the accident. How he gets through his life, which is racked with pain, tells you what a brave and strong person he is. I've never once heard him grumble."

Bob and Mike Pollock, the husband and wife team who wrote and produced "Dynasty" for eight years, are also neighbors of the Robbinses.

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